The book recounts the life of a man, Chancelade, from cradle to grave. It does so in a succession of poetic sketches, patched together like a quilt. Some passages seem normal enough, a meeting on a beach, or a funeral described; others are esoteric in the extreme. A meeting in a cafe described entirely in terms of hand signals, or a scrawled child's picture, and the list goes on. Le Clezio likes to tease and torment his readers; in many ways this is whimsical nouvelle vague Frenchiness, Godard at his least political playing strip poker with Michaux, whilst Baudrillard, Lyotard & co discuss whether it's all really happening and even if it is, what it therefore means isn't happening.
So, if you like that kind of thing, you'll relish Terra Amata. For my part, I found myself surfing the book more than ever; although written in the sixties it feels more like a blog than a novel. Some parts engaged, others less so. However, the literary ingenuity was constantly in evidence, and the writer's ability to create passages of poetic power indisputable. At the same time, within a sometimes parochial British culture, I am occasionally mocked for a tendency to read 'intense' or 'heavy' texts, (which are primarily described so because the original language in which they were written was not English). Most of the books I read seem far more approachable than people would ever suspect, but Terra Amata definitely slots into the more esoteric side of the bookshelf.
It was also somewhat disconcerting to discover the following announcement on page 23, written in such a way that it stands out from the text:
JUNE 11, 1966
I AM ALIVE